Biofuels and Food Production

biofuelsMost of the scenarios in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report that set out pathways to avoid temperature increases above 2C rely on large-scale use of so-called “negative emissions technologies,” with the lion’s share coming from the use of Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS) options. However, there is increasing concern that BECCS could have serious negative ramifications for food security for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. A recent study by Tim Searchinger et al., analyzing results from a suite of models assessing changes in land use, crop production and food consumption associated with the production of biofuels, suggests that these concerns are valid, and may have serious ramifications for the use of BECCS in the future.

Among the findings of the study were the following:

  1. Approximately 25-50% of net calories associated with diversion of corn or wheat to ethanol are not replaced through planting of other crops, but rather is taken out of food and feed consumption. Failure to replace crops reduces greenhouse gas emissions from land use change and direct emissions of carbon dioxide by people and livestock;
  2. Most analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions implications of biofuel production assume that the emissions associated with fermenting and burning ethanol is offset by carbon absorption by growth of crops diverted to ethanol production. However, this accounting methodology is faulty, because carbon absorbed by crops that would be grown anyway doesn’t constitute a valid offset, because it’s not linked to biofuel production and is not additional.
    1. The only valid form of crop growth offsets would be either from growth of additional crops to replace those diverted to biofuels production, or increases on crop yields on existing croplands;
    2. Moreover, converting forests or grasslands to produce additional food crops would also release carbon, “reducing or negating the net offset from producing more crops;”
  3. One study suggests that approximately 20% of calories diverted by biofuel production are not replaced. “Food reductions result not from a tailored tax on overconsumption or high-carbon foods but from broad global increases in crop prices.”

Among the class discussion questions that might be pertinent to this article are the following:

  • What would the food implications be of a large-scale commitment to BECCS?
  • What are the prospects to avoid food security issues outlined in this study by techniques such as increasing crop yields or using alternative bioenergy feedstocks, such as algae or cellulosic sources?;
  • If trade-offs are indeed inevitable in terms of food production and greenhouse gas emissions, how should the world community make decisions under such conditions?

Addressing “Loss and Damage” Under the Paris Agreement

I have recently published an online commentary on Article 8 of the Paris Agreement on The Conversation site, which addresses the issue of “loss and damage.” I think that loss and damage is an excellent issue to discuss with students because untitledit provides a device to discuss many “meta issues,” including the potential role of State responsibility and liability for climate damages, the role of climate justice, and the effectiveness of risk-pooling mechanisms, such as insurance.

Incidentally, The Conversation site has a lot of interesting energy and climate commentary by academics. Because it’s designed to be accessible to wider audiences, much of the content might be particularly appropriate for undergraduate students.

Updated Compendium on the Paris Agreement

untitledThis site’s Compendium on the Paris Agreement, which seeks to bring together key online resources on the agreement, has been expanded recently to more than 130 links. The Compendium is available at:

Any suggestions for additional resources are greatly appreciated, and can be submitted to the Compendium’s creator, Wil Burns, at: [email protected].

“Tough Love” on the Path to 2C?

In a new article (subscription only, but link here will take you to a pre-edited version on Professor Anderson’s home page) published in the journal Nature Geoscience, Kevin Anderson of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, argues that many of the recent scenarios for limiting temperatures to 2C or below are far too insouciant about the challenges ahead. Anderson contends that such “up-beat — and largely uncontested — headlines . . . are deliveClimate_Feedback_logo_sred through unrealistically early peaks in global emissions, or through the large-scale rollout of speculative technologies intended to remove CO2 from the atmosphere …”

By contrast, Anderson contends that the carbon budgets consistent with a 2C scenario requires “profound and immediate changes to the consumption and production of energy.” Among Anderson’s conclusions:

  1. The IPCC’s 1000 Gt cumulative carbon budget (for having a 66% chance or better of avoiding passing the 2C threshold) requires cessation of all carbon emissions from energy systems by 2050, five decades earlier than projected by the IPCC in its 5th Synthesis Report;
  2. Of 400 IPCC scenarios that have 50% chance or more of keeping temperatures below 2C, a whopping 344 require large-scale deployment of so-called negative emissions technologies (poster’s note: these include technologies such as Direct Air Capture and Bioenergy and Carbon Capture and Sequestration);
  3. Limiting emissions to 1000 GtCO2, with energy production alone chewing up 140 GtCO2 of this budget from 2011 to 2014 alone (overall a fifth of the budget has been emitted in four years), “suggests a profoundly more challenging timeframe and rate of mitigation than that typically asserted by many within the scientific community;”
    1. To avoid exceeding the remaining 650 GtCO2 in the budget would require ratcheting up emissions reduction rates to 10% annually by 2025, continuing this rate to virtual elimination of carbon dioxide by 2050. This would most likely exclude the use of fossil fuels in the post-2050 period, even with deployment of carbon capture and storage, unless its life cycle carbon emissions could be reduced by an order of magnitude;
  4. Given the need to avoid further imperiling the welfare of the global poor, developing countries should need to reduce carbon intensity by approximately 13% annually, higher still for the wealthiest developed countries.

Anderson’s piece could be an excellent reading for a module on long-term responses to climate change and what it will mean to reach the overarching objectives of the Paris Agreement. Among the questions that would be ripe for class discussion:

  1. What would be the policy implications of seeking to meet the more ambitious objective under Paris of limiting temperature increases to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels?;
  2. Anderson portrays negative emissions options as “speculative” or a deus ex machina; do you agree? Assuming that negative technologies can help to remove carbon from the atmosphere, are there any downsides to this approach?;
  3. What are some of the measures that could be taken to effectuate the radical transformation of the world’s economy that could meet the objective of limiting temperatures to 2C?

A New Tool for Teaching the Ultimate Wicked Problem

wicked problem cartoonWicked public policy problems have generated calls for better interdisciplinary collaboration for decades. No one discipline can effectively tackle them. Climate change is perhaps the ultimate wicked problem; the high profile that the COP21 meetings in Paris received will no doubt re-invigorate calls to break down disciplinary silos in the interests of mitigating dangerous climate change. But that won’t make silo-busting any easier; neither academic structures nor the complexity of the problem facilitate it.

But what if browser-based search engines like Google were not the only easy way to dig into climate change? What if we could access the collective knowledge of thousands of experts representing all of the disciplines that form the grist for individual, organizational, and societal climate change decision-making? This would be no mean feat. Anyone thinking seriously about geoengineering, for example, ideally would bring to the conversation an understanding of risk and risk management, economics and cost-benefit analysis, ethics and philosophy, atmospheric sciences and the functioning of complex systems, and societal decision-making and governance.

While no one can be an expert in everything, what if we could easily explore and learn from work being done across all climate-relevant disciplines? What opportunities would this open up for teaching about a problem as wicked as climate change? How much better prepared could law and policy decision-makers be to tackle climate change?

After more than 25 years in the climate change field, in 2010 Laura Kosloff and I began to use specialized TheBrain® software to build a climate knowledge solution with the lofty goal of helping users find “actionable knowledge” to support climate change thinking and decision-making. The open-access Climate Web contains far more information than any individual is likely to ever want to know; there just is no one-size-fits-all “actionable knowledge” when it comes to climate change. While we have only scratched the surface of the Climate Web’s potential, we are encouraged by user feedback including “having the Climate Web available is like having 100 experts in climate science, risk, communications and corporate strategy at the decision-making table with you.” That’s exactly the kind of inter-disciplinary perspective we’re trying to promote. You can see it in action in this recent Climate Web webinar recording.

The Climate Web and Teaching Climate Change

The core idea of TheBrain® software we use in the Climate Web derives from the concept of “mind maps.” Mind maps tap the organizational power of visualizing relationships of information. Their two-dimensional nature limits their capacity, however. TheBrain® software takes such visualization to a new level. It is uniquely suitable to linking together information from the wide range of disciplines relevant to understanding and responding to climate change. The Climate Web incorporates more than 11,000 reports, books, and journal articles. It is home to hundreds of PowerPoint presentations, infographics, and videos. More than 15,000 URLs point to news stories and web pages external to the Climate Web. More items are added practically every day.

The Climate Web curates, organizes, and links climate change information and ideas. With more than 500 topic headings and 750 index terms, the Climate Web pulls together published sources, news stories, multimedia materials, Q&A, discussion points, and commonly voiced arguments. This multi-subject and multi-resource organization facilitates cross-discipline exploration, and offers a knowledge solution that supports individualized learning and interdisciplinary thinking. Instead of presenting a single point of view or advocating a particular policy or technology outcome, the Climate Web curates arguments and ideas from hundreds of experts and thought-leaders across numerous disciplines. It creates a learning environment that encourages users to look at climate change through alternative disciplinary lenses.

A key feature of the Climate Web is that critical visuals, ideas, and other information can be extracted from included sources and then linked throughout the Climate Web. That makes it possible, for example, to collect in one place what dozens of reports might have to say about a specific issue. It also makes it easy for users to find their way to documents and resources of which they are not aware, but that might include “actionable knowledge” they need. Consider this example: Alan Rowson’s 2013 report, A New Agenda on Climate Change, was one of the most insightful pieces of climate analysis that year. But in three years, we have found only four people who had previously heard of the report. In exploring the Climate Web, you will likely find A New Agenda on Climate Change and many other resources that might influence your climate change thinking.

In the bullets below, we briefly lay out how the Climate Web can support efforts to bring more interdisciplinary and individualized learning into the climate classroom.

The Climate Web and Curriculum Development

In developing a climate curriculum, the Climate Web can point you to wide-ranging resources for any climate change topic, as well as to people and organizations working on those topics.The Climate Web makes it possible to put together a more diverse class curriculum than we’re accustomed to seeing. One example is the Climate Web’s exploration of “Big Climate Questions”:

  • Are Climate Risks Much More Immediate Than We Realize?
  • Can We Overcome Communication Barriers to Addressing Climate Change?
  • Is Economic Cost-Benefit Analysis the Right Frame for Inter-Generational Decisions?
  • Will a Low-Carbon Transition Come Too Late to Avoid Dangerous Climate Change?
  • Will a Successful Climate Social Movement Get Organized?
  • Is Business Friend or Foe When it Comes to Addressing Climate Change?
  • Will Adaptation (as Opposed to Mitigation) be Chosen as the Path of Least Resistance?

These may seem like straightforward questions. But they’re not. How policy and business decision-makers think about these questions will direct national and global policy, life-and-death business decisions, and the disposition of trillions of investment dollars. The Climate Web allows students to explore these questions, access differing points of view, and hopefully challenge their own pre-existing assumptions.

The Climate Web and Classroom Discussion

The Climate Web pulls together news stories and other materials for current topics in climate change, encouraging in-depth classroom discussion. Two recent topics are:

The Climate Web and Student Research and Learning

  • The Climate Web organizes topical resources in ways that make it easy for a user to explore. The Climate Engineering Deep Dive, for example—one of more than 50 Climate Web Deep Dives—integrates about 300 resources. But just as importantly, users can easily jump to topics including inter-generational decision-making, risk management, decision-making under uncertainty, climate ethics, and other topics relevant to discussions of climate engineering.
  • While the Climate Web organizes a vast amount of information, it does not seek to provide easy answers. Its structure requires thinking and user involvement. This provides exactly the kind of process that contributes to student learning and knowledge retention.

The Climate Web and Course Support  

  • Course materials can provide hyperlinks into the Climate Web, facilitating student access to exactly the information desired.
  • The Climate Spotlight Tool allows a window into the Climate Web from any website to be customized to the needs of a particular class, pointing to reading and research materials specific to the class.
  • The Climate Web can be used in the classroom to explore topics outside a professor’s specific discipline. The one-day Scenario Planning course built into the Climate Web, for example, can facilitate exploration of climate change risk scenarios; this is a key topic for corporate and policy risk managers.

We undertook to build the Climate Web with the goal of helping users find “actionable knowledge” to support climate change thinking and decision-making. We believe it can help prepare students for the intensely inter-disciplinary nature of the climate change problem. We invite you to explore it for yourself. We have found from experience that the software interface is not immediately intuitive to everyone, but the learning curve is only 10-15 minutes. We have also found that the webinar referenced above (available here with full length Q&A and here in shortened form), is a big help in communicating the structure and functioning of the Climate Web.

We would be interested to hear about your experience with the Climate Web. This will help us as we continue to work with the Climate Web to help tame the wicked problem of climate change.


Dr. Mark C. Trexler ()

Laura H. Kosloff, J.D. ()

The Climatographers


Soil Carbon Sequestration and Biochar Technologies

The recognition that most IPCC scenarios for to avoid exceeding the 2°C “guardrail” require large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs) has led to extensive recent discussion of the potential effectiveness and risks associated with a range of option. However, as the authors of a new study published in theBiochar journal Global Change Biology conclude, most studies to date have focused on bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS), direct air capture, enhanced weathering of minerals, and afforestation and reforestation. This study, by Pete Smith at the University of Aberdeen, expands the scope of inquiry to two other NETs options: 1. soil carbon sequestration (SCS), through methods such as alternation of agricultural practices, including no-till or low-till with residue management, organic amendment and fire management; and 2. Biochar, which is production of charcoal as soil amendment via the process of pyrolysis which can, inter alia, sequester carbon. Biochar, at least, is often included under the rubric of “climate geoengineering” options, in the subcategory of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches.

Among the study’s findings:

  1. SCS at global scale could sequester from 0.4-0.7GtCeq. yr-1, with technical potential of 1.37GtCeq. yr-1, at a cost of ~$70-370 per ton of Ceq. Biochar could effectuate sequestration of ~1 GtCeq yr-1, with a maximum potential of 1.8 GtCeq yr-1
  2. By contrast, BECCS might be able to sequester 3.3 GtCeq yr-1 by 2100, and direct air capture a comparable amount. However, the potential of SCS and biochar are higher than either enhanced weathering and comparable to afforestation and deforestation;
  3. About 20% of the mitigation to be derived from SCS could occur at negative cost, and 80% between $0-40 tCeq. Biochar costs range from -$581-1560 billion;
  4. In terms of water requirements, SCS and biochar are virtually zero, while direct air capture has medium to high water demands, and BECCS creating “a very large water footprint;”
  5. In terms of energy requirements, SCS has a negligible energy impact, and biochar can actually produce energy during the pyrolysis process; by contrast, both direct air capture and enhancing mineral weathering have significant energy requirements;
  6. One significant issue in terms of both SCS and biochar is “sink saturation,” i.e. decreased carbon sequestration potential as soils approach a new, higher equilibrium level. This can occur after 10-100 years for SCS, and is also an issue for biochar. This has implications for deployment of these technologies, as most scenarios for use of NETs envision primary importance in the second half of this century, meaning that deployment of some approaches in the next few years might have little impact later this century.

Overall, the author of the study concludes that SCS and biochar should be given serious consideration in integrated assessment models given their advantages over some other NET approaches.

Among the classroom questions that this study might generate:

  1. How do we determine the optimal mix of R&D funding for NETs?
  2. What should be the most important criteria for determining if we proceed with research on individual NETs options?
  3. What kind of governance architecture should be established for NETs research and development and/or deployment?

Compendium of Commentary on the Paris Agreement/COP21

untitledThe purpose of this compendium, which will be continually updated, is to amass a compendium of online pieces that might be useful for getting a handle on the new agreement, as well as providing some potential student readings.







5.1  U.S. Implementation

5.2   Geoengineering




8.1 Loss and Damage





Lecture on Climate Geoengineering

earthwrenchI recently delivered a lecture at University of Wisconsin, entitled “Into the Great Wide Open: The Potential Promise and Peril of Climate Geoengineering.” It provides an overview of climate geoengineering options and potential avenues for governance. The video for the lecture, including the Power Point presentation, is available here.

Historical Carbon/Climate “Debts,” and Implications for State Responsibility

CaptureAs this blog is being penned, the Parties to the UNFCCC are convening in Paris for COP21. The cynosure of the meeting is the mandate “to develop a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” to enhance climatic commitments. Thus, questions of fairness and equity in allocating emissions reductions and State responsibility are front and center. A new study by Damon Matthews in the journal Nature seeks to provide pertinent metrics to guide this inquiry. The study quantifies historical “carbon debts” of States, defined as the cumulative (since 1960) debt of countries whose emissions exceed an equal per capita share, and “climate debts,” defined as “the accumulated difference between actual temperature change caused by each country … and their per-capita share of global temperature.”

Among the findings and conclusions of the study:

  1. In terms of the “carbon debt,” the cumulative world debt (and “credit” for some countries) is 500 GtCO2 since 1960, and 250 GtCO2 since 1990. This translates into 40% of said emissions produced by countries in excess of levels consistent with their shares of world population;
    1. The United States is the leading “debtor” under these calculations, with the leading “creditors” being China and India, given historically low per-capita emissions. However, the landscape has changed more recently in terms of China, with its per capita emissions now pegged above the global average;
  2. In terms of so-called “climate debt,” the United States is responsible for 32% of the cumulative debt since 1960, with other significant debtor countries including Russia (10%), Brazil (9.8%), as well as Germany, Australia and Indonesia. Brazil and Indonesia’s debt is largely attributable to high levels of deforestation and methane and nitrous oxide emissions associated with the agricultural sector;
    1. Countries with the climate “credits” include India (35%), China (26%), Bangladesh (4.9%), Pakistan (4.3%) and Nigeria (2.4%)
    2. The total climate debt translates into 0.11C temperature increase form 1990-2013, or approximately a third of warming since 1990
  3. The decision as to whether to assess emissions based on territorial/production-based emissions or a consumption-based approach that allocates emissions associated with consumption of goods to consumer countries, can make a profound difference in the calculations of the “debt.” For example, China’s exported carbon debt is almost twice as large as its production-based value, and Russia’s transferred debt/credit is almost 35%. The same is true for large importers, such as Japan, Germany and the UK.

Among the class discussion questions that this article could raise are the following:

  • From an equity perspective, should a major product exporting country, e.g. China, be responsible for the emissions associated with said products when they are consumed in other countries? Does the fact that they derive profits from such production influence your answer?
  • The article suggests that we might wish to modify the per capita emissions metric for carbon debt to acknowledge differences in circumstances, e.g. cold temperatures. Do you think this would be a good idea, and if yes, what factors would you include and how would you weight them in the carbon debt equation?
  • The study pegs the respective carbon/climate debt and credits of countries based on emissions beginning in 1960. Would you establish a different baseline, and why?